A sermon on Ephesians 4:17-32 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 27 September 2020
Change is a natural part of life. We change our clothes. We change the colour of our walls. We change our minds. We live. We grow. We develop. We change. And unless you are already as good as you could possibly be, change is a necessary part of life. We must change in order to improve.
Today we are looking at Ephesians chapter 4, verses 17 to 32. And it begins with an appeal to change. The apostle Paul wrote,
I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.
In the four paragraphs that follow, Paul talks about a lifestyle that must change, that must be transformed. It represents an old way of life that many of his readers may once have indulged in. A life that is futile. A life that is dark and separated from God. A life that is given over to sensuality. A life that is nothing but a continual lust for more and more. A life that is no longer appropriate for the children of God.
You know some people say bad things about what we call human nature. Human nature, they say, is selfish. People only seem to care about themselves. Human nature, they say, is full of hypocrisy. People seem to see the faults in other people so clearly, but are blind to their own.
The strange thing about human nature is how inhuman it seems to be. Words like selfish and hypocritical may describe how people are. But they don’t come close to describing how we are meant to be. Paul’s call to change is an invitation to live a more human life, to embrace our true humanity that God restores for us in Jesus Christ.
For example, in the last two paragraphs we are called to put off falsehood and speak truthfully. To not let the sun go down on our anger. To stop stealing and to work with our own hands. To not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up. To get rid of bitterness, rage and malice, and instead to be kind and compassionate and forgiving. And I can’t help thinking that what we hear described in these sentences is the human nature that we are meant to be. Honest. Industrious. Generous. Constructive. Calm. Considerate. Compassionate. What could be more human than that?
And yet it would be a mistake to believe that Paul is simply talking about a change in behaviour. Don’t do this. Do this instead. Stop that. Start this. If lasting, significant change for the better was as easy as that, people would’ve done it years ago.
One problem is that many people say they want to change, but don’t really want to in their hearts. They want to enjoy the benefits, but are not prepared to pay the costs, to invest in a better future. A second problem is that many people tolerate change in their outward behaviour, but resist change at the core of their being.
But God is not content to fiddle about in the corners of our life like someone mowing the lawn of a rundown old house. Instead, he is determined to renovate our whole life, starting with laying a new foundation.
In the same way, his gospel is not about teaching us better manners. Sit up straight. Elbows off the table, and always chew with your mouth shut. Instead, the gospel is about producing lasting change from the inside out. Changing our attitudes, our desires, our goals and our motives.
The heart of Paul’s message lies in verses 20 to 24.
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
In these verses Paul describes the transformation of the gospel like taking off one set of clothes and putting on another. I believe that he does this for two reasons. Firstly, because it requires our active choice. We must stop living a certain way and start living a different, better way. A more human way. A way more consistent with God’s purpose for our lives. But no lasting change will happen against our wishes. It requires a deliberate act of the will. Like taking off and putting on. Putting aside and having nothing more to do with it, and embracing something different.
And secondly, because it results in an observable difference. People stop lying and start telling the truth. People stop stealing and start working. They stop being consumed by bitterness and instead learn to forgive. You can’t hide that kind of change. It penetrates into every observable outward behaviour. It makes people notice. They say, “What’s happened to you? You’ve changed.”
But it is not a change that starts on the outside or stays on the outside like a man who comes in from the garden and takes off his work clothes and puts on his church clothes, but remains the same person inside the clothes. The transformation of the gospel is not like a lizard that sheds its skin, but stays a lizard. Instead it is a change from the inside out like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. It looks different, only because it is different, and so it is with those whose lives are touched by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Notice, for example, that what we are to put off and to put on are not a simple set of behaviours, like improving our habits, but we are to put off and put on ourselves. Put off your old self. Put on the new self. The transformation of the gospel isn’t like going on a new diet or trying a new haircut. It isn’t about buying a new Bible and setting on a time for a regular daily devotion, but requires a change of mind at the heart of who we are, resolving, for example, to apply the truth of Scripture to every single aspect of our lives. That’s more than just setting an alarm. It means putting off an old me. And becoming a new me.
The gospel doesn’t change us like food that makes us grow taller or grow fatter. The gospel changes us like puberty. I used to be a child and I used to be satisfied with childish things. I used to eat dirt, but now I find that dirt no longer satisfies me. Then along came puberty and I became a different person. At puberty my body changed from a child to a man. But I didn’t grow up until my mind caught up with the change and started taking responsibility for my actions and choices. I didn’t become a man when I stopped looking like a child, but when I stopped acting like a child. I had to start acting different because I was different and was made to be different.
To believe the gospel, to accept God’s good news, to receive Jesus Christ into our lives as our Saviour and Lord, to become the children of God and to receive his Spirit, is to undergo a change in our being as profound as hitting puberty. We are made new in the image of Christ. God’s purpose for us is that we become who we were meant to be. We were made in the image of God to be like him. But we squandered his gifts and wasted them on ourselves and fell short of that purpose. We became inhuman, hating and being hated. The work of the Spirit is to complete what God began, restoring our true humanity so that we become like Jesus. It is a change that begins at our conversion to God. We are born again. But we do not begin to mature in Christ until our mind catches up with that change.
What Paul is teaching us here is that we have to start acting different, because we are different. In Christ we are no longer who we used to be. We are children of God and heirs to his kingdom. So we can’t go on doing what we used to do.
Notice secondly that this change isn’t something we can bring about by trying harder or doing better. Paul talks about being made new, not making ourselves new. He talks about being created to be like God, not making ourselves to be like God. These things are done by God. They are a result of what Jesus has done for us. They are the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives. We can no more make ourselves new than we can turn ourselves into an orangutan. It is what Christ does in our lives once we accept him into our lives. It’s like inviting a master carpenter into our house who says, “This place could be pretty nice, except that wall and that wall and that wall need to go.”
Notice thirdly that the transformation of the gospel begins with our attitudes. Not our habits. Not our manners. Not our appearance. Not even our behaviour. But with our attitudes. Our thinking. Our desires. Our goals. Our motives. The Christian life is not just about what we do. But it is about why we do it.
Notice, for example, how important reasons are in Paul’s appeals. He doesn’t just say, “Stop doing that. Do this instead.” But along the way he explains why. Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour. Why? Because we are all members of one body. Hurting our neighbour is like hurting our ourselves. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands. Why? That he may have something to share with those who need. Now, that’s very different to the profit motive. Work harder, earn more money, buy a better life for yourselves and for your family. This is the generosity motive. It’s about stopping being a parasite on society and starting to be contributing member of the community. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger. Be kind and compassionate to one another. Forgiving each other. Why? Just as in Christ God forgave you. It’s the gospel. God loved his enemy, when he loved you and sent his only Son to give his all for you. And so you must love your enemy or you are no child of your heavenly Father.
Do you see what I mean? Some of us must change what we do. Our minds need to catch up to the change God has brought into our lives. You are a child of God. God has saved you to restore your true humanity. It is time to embrace a truly human life. We have to start acting different, because we are different. We can’t keep acting the way we used to, because we are no longer the people we used to be.
Some of us must change what we do. And some of us must change the reason that we do what we do. We must stop doing good for appearance’ sake. We must stop pretending to be so respectable. And we must start being good from the inside out, lining up our attitudes and motives and desires with the gospel. We must act different, because we are different, because God is transforming our inhumanity into the humanity of his Son Jesus Christ. In this way, God through is Holy Spirit will change us from the inside us.